Familiarity is one of the greatest comforts that come with the holidays. The regularity of routines, knowing one’s place in age-old family traditions and who will be the first one awake on Christmas morning, anticipating Dad’s eighty or more references to A Christmas Carol and your siblings’ eye rolls, knowing Mom bought you yet another pajama set she’ll forget about by next year, and your dog’s frantic barking when the carolers appear – those are often what make the holidays so special.
Coming from a family of six, it’s not often that my siblings and I are all home at the same time. With two of us still in college and one working 9:00-5:00 in a city eight hours away, I can count on one hand the number of times my sisters and I were under the same roof in the past year. Life has gotten pretty hectic as we’ve get older, but as ages, schedules, and addresses change, the holidays have always been a constant.
For as long as I can remember, there hasn’t been a Christmas Eve where we haven’t clambered into the Ford Expedition (my sisters and I always forcing our little brother into the backseat despite the fact that he’s been inches taller than any of us for the past three or four years) and headed to Christmas Eve mass before attending the party our friends have every year. Each year we’ll leave church deciding that this year’s rendition of Silent Night was worse than last year’s, bicker about who’s sitting too close to whom, claim we’re too tired to be social, then abruptly stop our quarreling when Last Christmas comes on the radio. From the back seat my brother takes it away – his are the solos; my sisters and I sing back up. It happens every year.
But this year is different. This year I’m extending my semester abroad over the holidays and will be 4,000 miles and a six-hour time difference away from home. My Christmas begins and ends before my family’s does and while I’d never wish away my time in Europe, I can’t help but start to feel the homesickness that hadn’t hit before the holidays began.
Caught up in a whirlwind of traveling and new experiences, I hadn’t taken the time to really miss home until the sparkling lights in shop windows and American Christmas tunes on French radio stations told me it was time I start. It’s been two months since I’ve seen my parents and more than four since I left home. I’ve gotten used to quiet dinners with somebody else’s parents and the unshakable awareness that their home isn’t mine.
My host family’s living room is filled with antique furniture and offers a beautiful view of the Saône, but there’s not a yellow lab curled up on the tattered loveseat. The kitchen is bright and warm, but lacks the constant stream of Neil Diamond songs that my mom plays when she cooks the soup that everyone pretends to like. And my room here is beautiful – French windows and high ceilings and another breathtaking view – but at night it’s lonely.
Yet in this alone time I can’t bring myself to wish that anything was different. I’ve been blessed with an incredible opportunity to study abroad and supportive family and friends to encourage me to break out of my comfort zone and embrace these changes. I have a semester’s worth of invaluable memories, new friends, and more pictures than my phone can store. I know I’m very fortunate which is why this Christmas I’m thankful for a family that makes me feel homesick when I’m away from them.
Living away from home for a couple of years at school and then coming to a foreign country has made me much more independent than I ever thought I’d have to be. I can now cook (kind of) for myself, do laundry and buy groceries, and make appointments and reservations – in a foreign language no less. I can navigate public transportation, find my way home at 2:00am, and make sure I remember to floss. But I still need my parents. For advice, a recipe, someone to do the worrying for me, I need them.
And while my siblings and I aren’t always in the perfect harmony we’ve found every other Christmas Eve, I need them too. My older sister may choose visiting her boyfriend over family dinners, but she’s always the first one to respond when I message my family and the only one to put my dog on Skype. My younger sister pretends to be bored with school and unimpressed with returning to our small town, but if asked the right questions, her one-word answers turn into hilarious anecdotes. My brother – tall, gangly, and still unaware of the attention he gets from the sophomore girls – will say little until he offers a one-liner that I’m forced to take note of and send off to my friends just moments later. We awkwardly hug when we’re reunited, mumble our hellos, and toss out “see ya”s when one of us leaves home. Getting my siblings to show an ounce of emotion is like pulling teeth, but that’s our relationship. And it’s kind of perfect.
So instead of pining away for Christmas past where I’d wake up to a blazing fire, yellow dog, and presents under the tree, this year I’ll be counting my blessings. Distance really does make the heart grow fonder and I’m grateful for a break from tradition that lets me realize the verity of that old adage. It’s corny, like so much else during the holiday season, but true and what better time to say so than at Christmas?
When my family is waking up Christmas morning, my day will be well underway as I consult Paula Deen and Rachael Ray’s best holiday recipes in the way my mom’s never done. They’ll sit down for their neither under-nor-overcooked meal when I’m fast asleep then say their goodnights at my daybreak. An unspoken acknowledgment that something is different, we’ll Skype for a few minutes and pretend our family’s whole. No, there’s no place like home for the holidays, but knowing nothing will have changed when I return, I can’t wait to come back in the new year.